Campus Life

Ask A TA

Ask A TA

This week features a fairly serious question that I think many of us have had to contemplate before. While normally we pride ourselves on answering questions we’re absolutely unqualified to handle, this week actually features knowledgeable answers from experienced TAs. As always, if you have any questions, e-mail us at



Dear AskaTA,


It’s the worst academic week ever. A million things are due plus tests. You’re stressed, broke, and hungry. You’re scrambling for change to get an energy drink. You’re checking out of LaVerde’s and someone takes the opportunity that the cashier is distracted to walk out with a red bull. You look at them and you can see them looking at you from the corner of their eye. Next: After staying up all night finishing all the work due that day, you have two hours to study for the test you have in the afternoon. You’re not ready for the test. You get to the test late and sit in the back and during the test you keep hearing people whisper back and forth.

Do you join in on the trend?

But seriously, what do you do in a situations like this?

—Not The Best Person Either

Dear Not The Best Person Either,

You should not join in. Ultimately, the purpose of a test is to give you accurate feedback on your mastery of the material, and getting information from others will make it impossible for you or us to accurately gauge your understanding. The purpose of taking the class is to learn, and if the reason that you are not doing well is that you have no time to dedicate to the class, then it defeats the purpose to spend time going to lectures and sitting in at tests; the best plan would be to drop the class and take it next semester. In terms of the en masse cheating that you describe, my guess is that not everyone by chance didn’t have time to study. It seems more likely to me that the class is improperly paced, or that the lectures aren’t clear. Remember that we the teaching staff also use your grades to evaluate our own performances. If we rushed through material during lecture and did a bad job of preparing for recitation, and then everybody gets an A on the test, we will assume that our own sloppy jobs were sufficient, even outstanding, and we will probably do an even worse job next year. So by cheating, you would be helping to ensure that next year’s kids don’t learn anything either.

You are not responsible for the conduct of your classmates, but you are responsible for your own. MIT has a lot of resources for students who are having trouble, and my experience as a TA tells me that the drop date is among the most underutilized. If you are overworked, consider taking a lighter course load. If the class is just really hard, then use all of the resources that are available to you to focus your efforts on the areas that you are having difficulty. These include tests, psets, lectures, recitations, tutorials, office hours, labs, psets and practice tests from previous years when available, tutors, and in some situations, psychological services like from MIT medical ( or Nightline. But remember that you are here to learn, and that the requirements of your classes are designed to facilitate that. Don’t reduce their efficacy by tampering with their results.

—TA Dr. Graham Ruby

Dear Not The Best Person Either,

In general, you propose a difficult problem — what does one do when witnessing a violation of ethics such as an infringement of school policy or one that flat out breaks the law. Here the dilemma is somewhat analogous to “whistle blowing” in an industrial setting. Specifically, one holds private information pertaining to a problem within their company, and is unsure whether or not to make this information public. For an engineer, one should explore all avenues to settle the problem internally. However, in some cases, the company will ignore the engineer. In these cases, the engineer’s duty to society overrides their company loyalty. In the event that the company’s choices lead to public endangerment, the engineer is required to blow their hypothetical whistle. The real difficulty arises when the ethical choice is not cut-and-dry or when there is undue stress such as a rough academic week. As a result, engineers have adopted a general set of guidelines routed in the philosophy of ethics.

Do you join in on the trend?

Most of these ethical guidelines, especially the views by Kant, scream, “do not join in.”

What do you do in a situation like this?

Here the ethical conduct is not obvious and can vary depending on ones personal morals. From an engineering perspective, the events witnessed do not threaten the civilian population and therefore it’s probably not wise to pull out the foghorns and call campus police or the dean.

—TA Dave Shirokoff G